There's an intriguing article today in the Hartford Courant today about a prisoner named William Coleman going on hunger strike and the ensuring debate over whether he has the right to starve himself, even to death. The prison has begun force-feeding him after his weight has dwindled from 250 lbs to 125. Coleman believes he was wrongly convicted and sees himself as protesting a corrupt correctional establishment.
In a Superior Court hearing that begins Thursday in Hartford, Judge James T. Graham will hear arguments that pit First Amendment and privacy rights — including the right to refuse medical treatment — against the state's interest in preventing suicide, maintaining control of its prisons and resisting inmate coercion.
I'm not entirely sympathetic to the prisoner's claim that starving himself amounts to Constitutionally protected free-speech, but I feel he has the right nonetheless. My question is, if a person is allowed to commit suicide outside of a prison, why should it be different inside?
Meanwhile, I came across this excellent post by Cecil Adams over at the Straight Dope on the history and cultural morality of suicide.
In the U.S. suicide has never been treated as a crime nor punished by property forfeiture or ignominious burial. (Some states listed it on the books as a felony but imposed no penalty.) Curiously, as of 1963, six states still considered attempted suicide a crime--North and South Dakota, Washington, New Jersey, Nevada, and Oklahoma.
It's a thorny issue, and there's probably not a neat and tidy answer. (I might even have my understanding entirely wrong: "But Dr. Michael Grodin, director of medical ethics at the Boston University School of Medicine and Public Health, said hunger strikes are not suicide attempts because the intent is not to die, but to produce a change.")
Either way, Coleman seems determined to carry out the strike "to the end," and also has the support of his family. I'm not sure that the state's interests overpower those wishes, but, then again, our culture has struggled with "the right to die" for a few decades now. Just some food for thought.